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Zé Theory: A Brazilian Original

David Byrne's lavish box set salutes tropicalia pioneer Tom Zé

By Robert Christgau
Special to MSN Music

Box sets aspire to be art objects. Evaluated by the crass standard of cost per minute of durable music, they're almost invariably overpriced. But for admirers of the honoree, they're not such an extravagance if viewed as "multiples" like silk screens or silver gelatin prints. David Byrne has been guilty of exploiting this tendency -Talking Heads' fragile, awkwardly shaped, overdocumented 2003 "Once in a Lifetime" is a nadir of the form, and was soon replaced by 2005's merely costly "Talking Heads," with its eight extras-loaded audio-visual DualDiscs and its white hard-plastic box embossed with the titles of every Talking Heads song. But Byrne earns his pretensions with "Studies of Tom Zé: Explaining Things So I Can Confuse You," released October 5 on his own Luaka Bop label.

If you don't recognize the name, three bullet points: One, Tom Zé was an obscure principal of the tropicalia movement that rose from Brazil's northeastern Bahia region in the late '60s -a movement best known for giving us the world-class singer and songwriter Caetano Veloso and the even more popular musician turned minister of culture Gilberto Gil. Two, the now 75-year-old Zé owes the most profitable and productive portion of his career, its last two decades, to David Byrne. Three, Tom Zé is every bit as remarkable an artist as Veloso, Gil, or Talking Heads. If a box set -comprising three 180-gram vinyl discs and random items to be described later -introduces curiosity-seekers to his achievement, it will be an art object deserving of the name.

Zé's oft-told backstory has the supernatural grace of a fairytale. A slightly older companion, advisor, and partner of the tropicalia cohort, Zé made his living at music, but was too eccentric to match his allies' success, and by the late '80s was preparing to go home and run a cousin's gas station. Out of the blue he was contacted from New York by Byrne, who in 1988 had taken a flier on Zé's 1975 "Estudando o Samba" in a Rio record shop because its title means "studying the samba." Byrne had never heard of Zé, but when he played the LP he was so startled that, instead of cherry-picking a track for a Luaka Bop samba compilation, he decided that his label's inaugural release would be a revised "Estudando o Samba" waggishly entitled "The Best of Tom Zé: Massive Hits." This ploy didn't make Zé a star. But it made him famous enough that he's been releasing memorable albums worldwide ever since.

The box's three LPs constitute Zé's complete "estuando" series: 1975's devoted to samba proper, 2006's a feminist operetta that takes off from the modern romantic pop samba known as "pagode," and 2010's "Estuando a Bossa: Nordeste Plaza," Zé's comment on pop-jazz bossa nova sophistication, which is being released as a separate CD simultaneously with the box. Rather than stylistic excursions these really are "studies," whose details the hooked listener can glimpse by perusing the liner essays and translated lyrics available in both box and CD versions. The hook is Zé's own musical style -a style whose salty sweetness, acerbic good humor, and catchy angularity leaps language barriers and has little to do with the gentle roll and civilized quiet non-Brazilians generally associate with Brazilian music.

"Studies of Tom Zé: Explaining Things So I Can Confuse You" comes with a suggested retail price of $70. The vinyl is indeed richer sounding than the digital versions, which purchasing the box permits you to download, although the difference is more pronounced with "Estuando o Samba," now 20 years old, than with the more recent CDs. Also included are a less-than-scintillating 45 rpm single of two songs Zé performed with Chicago combo Tortoise in 2001, a 12-by-12 booklet featuring a more-than-scintillating essay by Tulane tropicalia expert Christopher Dunn, and a rather indulgent recording of a 1993 interview in which you get to hear Arto Lindsay translate (and condense) Byrne's questions and Zé's answers. Not that the interview isn't of interest; if you want to read an edited version, here in an MSN exclusive is a link: http://bombsite.com/issues/42/articles/1628.

With Zé's music, however, translation is a welcome extra, not a necessity. It speaks for itself.

Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. The winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship who has published five books based on his journalism, Christgau maintains a comprehensive website at robertchristgau.com. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.

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